THE PAST IN THE CONTEMPORARY
By Unoma N. Azuah
Friday, May 28, 2010.
The Terrible Stories is a demonstration of how history and/or tensions of the past are reflected on contemporary life in the African American experience. Slavery is the remote cause with blatant evidence of racial bigotry, while the conflicts of contemporary times found in continued racism and oppression are the immediate ones. The brutality of racism may appear slight today, but conflicts or racism and oppression continue to account for the presence of the past in the present. Clifton draws from history, specifically from slavery and the subsequent theological and cultural aspects of the Negro spirituals. She also weaves in the sense of freedom, liberation, and ancestral strength. Her collection more or less is a testimonial to the contention that the past is not past in the African American experience but is ever present.
In one of the interviews she granted for the Lannan Literary video series she says, “the past is not past until it is acknowledged.” Clifton illustrates this issue in several of the poems in the collection and draws from her personal experience and from the survival of her ancestors. The past or history is very important to Clifton, so much so that she entitles one of her poems “I am accused of tending to the past,” and reveals how history plays out its role in the areas of materialism, race and power play: Some lines of the poem read thus:
I am accused of tending to the past
as if I made it,
as if I sculpted it
with my own hands. I did not
a monstrous unnamed baby,
and I with my mother’s itch
took it to breast
and named it
She is more human now
learning languages everyday,
remembering faces, names and dates
when she is strong enough to travel
on her own, beware she will.
Why would Clifton personify history, and refer to her as /more human/? Could it be that history was/is human, and was once less human? Since man creates and lives through history, could history in this context be on the side of a particular race? A race that explored conquered and enslaved? Could she be referring to the inhuman face of slavery? She does answer these questions in her collection, yet the reader may speculate that she is referring to the event of slavery; the horror and humiliation it inflicted on the black race. The lines /this past was waiting for me/ point to her heritage with all the implications that come with it. And /when I came a monstrous unnamed baby/ is likely connected to her being born with twelve fingers.
The Terrible Stories has forty six poems and divided into five sections: “Dream of foxes,” “From the Cadaver,” “A term in Memphis,” “In the meantime,” and “From the book of David.” Undoubtedly, history binds all the poems in all the sections together.
Poems like fox, hag, riding, Memphis, Lee, and Son of Jesse illustrate this reality. The image of the fox is representative of the African American experience in the American history. The fox is a good hunter, used sometimes to kill and destroy. As an expert hunt animal, the fox is usually exploited. In this instance by the way agents of oppression exploited blacks because of their gift of superior physical strength similar to the fox. The last two lines of the poem implies this. It goes thus:
Master Of The Hunt, why am i
not feeding, not being fed?
In extension, hag ride goes further to depict the strength of Blacks; the poem reveals a persona with immerse energy and strength of will. It reads thus:
is what I ask myself?
maybe it is the Afrikan in me
still trying to get home
after all these years
but when I wake to the heat of morning
galloping down the highway of my life
something hopeful rises in me
rises and runs me out into the road
and I lob my fierce thigh high
over the rump of the day and honey
I ride I ride
Memphis, on the other hand, recalls the days of civil rights, the struggles and oppositions of that period. Clifton emphasizes the names of civil rights activists in Mississippi to project their sacrifices and their contributions to the freedom and liberation of blacks, specifically in the eight, ninth and tenth stanzas. Her use of repetition heightens the tone and the prize of freedom, thereby making the names symbolize freedom itself:
Further, Lee looks at Clifton’s father, tracing his lineage of slave names on both her paternal and maternal side. In his attempt to assert the honor attached to the names he claims, he projects the underlined irony because the names after all are former enslavers’ names. But they have been forced to define themselves and their identity in these names. Pride here becomes shame or can take the place of shame. The mood of the poem captures the irony in her father’s pride in professing his inherited slave name. This is disclosed in stanza four of the poem: And it reads thus:
it may have been a lie
it may have been
one of my father’s tales
if so there was an honor in it
if it was indeed to be
the child of slaves
he would decide himself
that proud old man
I can see him now
chaining his mother to lee.
On another level, the vile nature of slavery as it relates to the reduction of enslaved Africans to the state of chattels and property becomes appalling particularly when vessels used to transport them had such names as “Benediction,” “Gift of God,” “Grace of God,” and “Angel.” In the words of a noted art critic, Ralph Applebaum, the names “Deliverance,” “Delight,”…can you believe that these ships were the names of slave ships.” He goes on to add that these are “ironic reminders of the unbelievable crime against African people,” which relates to the inhuman face introduced in the poem, “I am accused to tending to the past.” Additionally, Clifton in the poem, “Slaveships,” describes the impossible conditions these Africans were subjected to in the following:
loaded like spoons
into the belly of Jesus
where we lay for weeks for months
in the sweat and stink
of our own breathing
Why do you not protect us
chained to the heart of the Angel
where the prayers we never tell
and hot and red
as our body ankles
Can these be men
who vomit us out from ships
called Jesus Angel Grace of God
onto a heathen country
can this tongue speak
can these bones walk
Grace Of God
Can this sin live
Clifton emphasizes the mockery in the naming of the ships by juxtaposing Jesus; Grace of God and Angel with the pain inflicted on enslaved Africans, straying far away from positive connotations of these names. The bitter experience is what she refers to in the phrase “can this sin live.” In other words, can this scheme ever be considered human, and if it was carried out by humans, these humans must have the hearts of what she calls “heathen.” This implication echoes and does address the issue of history being more human now compared to the inhumanity of these activities.
In tracing her origin beyond the dislocation conveyed by the slave ships, she retraces her steps to her ancestral home in Dahomey, the present Benin Republic in West Africa. Her father’s great grand-mother was kidnapped from Dahomey and brought as a slave to the New World. The legendary strength of the Dahomean women warriors is perhaps what she alludes to in the poem, “Amazon.” She symbolically links her battle with cancer and her survival to the Amazon in her. The poem “Amazon” recreates her cancer experience in the light of the Amazons of Dahomey, especially her potency and the re-definition of that experience as a sacrifice. Additionally, invoking Audre Lorde in this poem is significant in the sense that Audre, a famous African American poet, also traced her ancestry to Dahomey and was, up to a point, a cancer survivor. Therefore, Audre is addressed as a fellow poet, a kin in both heritage and the illness of cancer.
The Dahomean Amazons were fierce and powerful women. As early as the 17th century, the women warriors of Dahomey started off as palace guards and, as the years wore on; they were conscripted as soldiers and served as the strongest arm of the king’s soldiers. European explorers gave them the name Amazons, taken from the name of the women warriors in Greek tales. Edgerton’s record of the warriors has an apt description of the Amazons, principally in describing their ferocity and loyalty.
In his words, “European visitors to Dahomey learned what the enemies of the Dahomey already knew—these women were not only a supremely loyal corps of palace guards, they were also elite professional soldiers, more disciplined, audacious, and courageous than Dahomey’s best full time male soldiers.” (16) Their watchword is “conquer or die,” and their hard training in tropical forests taught them endurance, so that wounds or hunger did not stop them from making their conquests. They could scale any high wall and dash through a thorn bush. Like the Amazon women who were willing to lose or remove their right breast to improve on their skill of archery, Clifton identifies with her ancestral Amazons in the sacrifice of losing a breast, a leg, an arm or sight in defense of their community.
On getting to the new world, enslaved Africans had to be auctioned off like animals and objects. This must have inspired the poem “Auction Street.” During one of her visits to Memphis, Clifton visited a place that used to serve as an auction block for slaves, and she relived the ache of these slaves auctioned off. This dehumanizing experience is what James Cone describes in the meaning of being enslaved and being auctioned off: “Slavery meant being snatched from your homeland and sailing to an unknown land in a stinking ship. Slavery meant being regarded as a property, like horses, cows, and household goods. For blacks, the auction block stood for brokenness because on sale days no family ties were recognized.” (20, 21)
The next poem that speaks to the past not being past but still very much in the present is the poem “the coming of the fox.” Here Clifton changes the image of the fox; the fox this time represents the enemy. Its action points to oppression and harassment, mainly with its continued re-appearance at the door of the persona: The opening lines go like this: one evening I return
to a red fox
haunched by my door
I am afraid
although she knows
no enemy comes here
silent as my skin bleeds
into long bright flags
The first line of the last stanza particularly suggests that the persona suffers because of her skin or that her skin takes all the pain caused by the presence of the fox. The persona suffers for the same reasons for which her ancestors were kept in bondage, thus affirming the idea that the fox in this context represents white oppressors. This pattern is repeated in the poem “1994”; this stanza specifically stresses the implications of being born woman and black. Consider the following lines: /to be born with breasts/ you know how dangerous it is/ to wear dark skin/.
From the Amazons to slaveships to the new world, African Americans found ways to bear the humiliation they suffered. One of these ways was through songs. They created songs as they toiled and labored in plantations, stressing their impending freedom, adding themes found in their enslaver’s religion. Consequently, the spirituals came to be. In spite of their sufferings and all the cruelty meted out on them because of the color of their skin, they still believed that someday “sometimes, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins.” (13 Cone)
The spiritual did not tend to be religious; there were social implications to it which John Lovell says were “the slave’s description and criticism of his environment,” as well as the “key to his revolutionary sentiments and to his desire to fly to free territory.” (14) One of the three basic subjects Lowell observes in the Negro spiritual is “a tactic battle, the strategy by which [slaves] expected to gain an eminent future.” (14) Clifton’s poem Shadows has a strong feature of the spiritual which falls under Lovell’s first category of “a desire for freedom.” It also falls under the theological aspect of the spirituals. This is very much highlighted from the fifth to the last stanza of Shadows. She writes: /she will be dreaming of a small boat/ through centuries of water/ into the white new world/ she will be weaving garments/ of neglect/. Wake up girl/ this don’t mean nothing. /
A spiritual that has dialogue close to Clifton’s use of refrain in this poem goes thus: /why don’t you sit down?/ Can’t sit down!/ Sit down, I told you/ I can’t sit down/ Go ‘way don’t bother me/ I can’t sit down/ Cause, I just got to heaven/ An’ I can’t sit down!/. Shadows and this spiritual share unexpected realization of freedom or happiness; the voices that speak try to convince them or lure them on to believe and act upon their changed or impending change of situation.
One of the theological origins of the spirituals according to James Cone is that “the essence of ante-bellum black religion was the emphasis on the somebodiness of black slaves. He continues by saying that “the content of black preacher’s message stressed the essential worth of their person.” (16) And this is well stated in Thurman’s words, “You are created in God’s image. You are not slaves, you are not niggers; you are God’s children.” (17)
Hinged on this belief came the faith that God will reward the righteous and punish the evil doer in everlasting fire. As well as the conviction that God is on their side and that He will set them free, and take them to heaven where they will enjoy everlasting life. This, therefore, placed enslaved Africans in strong affinity with the Israelites, and their bondage in Egypt. Just as God led the Israelites across the Red Sea, so will He rescue blacks from slavery. Clifton’s referral of Memphis as the capital of the Old Kingdom of “slavery” has a parallel to ancient Egypt and to the freedom Israelites obtained through God.
The Christian roots of the spiritual is carried through Clifton’s poem Heaven. In this poem the persona’s brother is in heaven surrounded by clouds of friends, implying angels. Hence, the strong belief of the spiritual slaves that after this life of suffering they will be with God in heaven and enjoy eternity is echoed in this poem.
The hope slaves expressed in their spirituals did not have to wait for afterlife or heaven for the God they prayed to seem to have come to their rescue with the proclamation of the emancipation in January 1, 1863. At this time America was close to its third year in civil war. With the proclamation all slaves were declared free. Even though freedom did not come fast for African Americans, they were recruited into the union army, thereby making the civil war a symbolic fight for freedom. It was, however, a long freedom to come, because black codes made only for blacks restricted them. Free slaves, for instance, were still being severely oppressed by whites. As a result of Jim Crow laws, which were intensely entrenched in the South. As a result, the Civil rights movement emerged.
In Clifton’s poem Memphis she recreates the history of two white civil right activists and one black activist killed because of their conviction in the equality of all men. The first stanza of the poem reiterates the cost of freedom while personifying Lake Erie as a vehicle of freedom. She crafts a play on words with Erie and e /is for escape/. In the subsequent stanza she pulls in the distance between bondage and freedom by circling back to the kingdom of Dahomey, her ancestral home, implying that both have nothing in common. As she puts it: /this river (Mississippi) never knew/ the kingdom of dahomey/. The fear contained in the state of Mississippi and its racism is what she recounts as a girl in the seventh stanza: /the bottom of Memphis/ drops into the nightmare/ of a little girl’s fear./
The continued trepidation caused by racism in the South is what Clifton recreates in the poem entering the south. As she wears her mother’s coat, the coat represents all the burden and battles it took to rebuild the South: Some of the lines read:…./the sleeves/ coil down toward my hands/ like rope. I will wear it/ because she loved it/ but the blood from its pools/on my shoulders/ heavy and dark and alive/. /And alive could imply that the struggles and bloodshed are still going on. The next poem, the Mississippi river empties into the gulf seems to answer the questions of the past still being very much alive in the present, especially as it is: /this river in which the past/ is always flowing./ every water/ is the same water coming round/.
What moves Clifton’s collection beyond its presentation of history in contemporary times is the concluding poem “what manner of man,” particularly the ending line which reads: /Bloody skull in one hand, harp in the other/. Here, David a faithful servant of God, a poet and a lover of music is also capable of killing. His personality embodies the conflicting passions of mankind. It further echoes the ironies of life, mostly in the sense that vessels of bondage could be labeled “Deliverance” “Grace of God,” “Angel,” and “Delight.”
In all, Clifton’s volume has proved that history wears a human face in the likes of Bowers and the murderers of Schewerner, Chaney, Goodman and Medgar. History in her inhumanity understood no language, knew no dates, no face or names. She only understood the language of conquest, expansion and oppression. History has continued to wear her inhuman face into contemporary times. Though her cruelty has taken subtle forms, she is insisting on remaining part of contemporary life.
Lucille Clifton is not the only writer to reflect the past in contemporary life. She may be one of the few writers to treat the issue in verse form, but lots of writers have made history and the African American experience a dominant theme in their writings. Even in the areas of theory, critics like Michelle Wallace, the legendary W.B. Dubois, and Derrick Bell, to name a few, are known to have vastly written about the African American experience. Derrick Bell, for example, testifies to the continued presence of the past in the present even when it appears to be understated. For instance, he accepts that “contemporary color barriers are certainly less visible as a result of our successful effort to strip the law’s endorsement from the hated Jim Crow signs.” However, he maintains that, indeed, the very absence of visible signs of discrimination creates an atmosphere of racial neutrality and encourages whites to believe that racism is a thing of the past.” (p.6)
As diverse as this theme may appear in form, Clifton’s treatment of it in The Terrible Stories, is thorough and done in a few words, which makes her collection compact and dense. Through this collection of poems, she reaffirms that the tension of the past are still very present in contemporary times. Whether or not the continued tension caused by racism on the African American experience will die out or continue to encroach into the future, Clifton has made her work a hallmark by documenting a complex issue with embellished language and captivating images.
Clifton, Lucille. The Terrible Stories, Boa Publishers, New York, 1996.
Argyle, W. J. The Fon of Dahomey. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1966.
Bell, Derrick. Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. Basic Books, New York. 1992.
Cone, James H. The Spirituals and The Blues: An Interpretation. Orbis Books, New York, 1972.
Edgerton, Robert B. Warrior Woman: The Amazons of Dahomey and the Nature of War. Westview Press, Colorado, 2000.
Forbes, F.E. Dahomey and the Dahomans. Volume 2. Frank Cass and Co. Ltd. London, 1996.
Gillan, Jennifer, ed. Identity Lessons. Penguin Books, New York, 1999.
Lovell, John JR. Black Song: The Forge and The Flame. Paragon House Publishers, New York, 1986.
Wallace, Michelle. Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. Verso, London. 1990.
Lucille, Clifton. Interview with Quincy Troupe. Dir. Dan Griggs. Videocassette. Lannan Literary Video, 1996.
Dockery, Tokisha. “Medger Evans: A Forgotten and Unrecognized Legend.” The Nubian Message On Line. December 4, 1997.
Douglas, Linder O. “A Trial Account.” The Mississippi Burning Trial: United States vs. Cecil Price et al 1967.
Christianity: “Who was David in the Bible.”
Lutz, Wendy. “Reconstruction: Separate is Unequal,” Black Codes and Plessey v. Ferguson.
Phenner, Lee. “Clifton Notes.” George jr. Internet monthly, June 97 Features Arcadia Departments.
National Archives and Records Administration. “The Emancipation Proclamation.” April 5, 2001.
Unoma Nguemo Azuah is an award-winning Nigerian writer and an important new voice in African literature. She holds an MFA in Poetry and Fiction from the Virginia Commonwealth University and has edited literary publications in Nigeria and abroad. She currently teaches in America and she is awaiting the publication of her new book.